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Hebron and Beyond

Few Derby people seem to know that about five years ago Derby was officially twinned with Hebron. 22 Derby citizens travelled to Israel/Palestine in early March to strengthen that link. Hebron is in the southern part of the Occupied West Bank, a city not much smaller in population than Derby (rather over 215,000), mostly Muslim but with a small Christian minority and 800 Jewish settlers.

We went as pilgrims, despite only being eight active Christians; there were two lapsed Sikhs and several agnostics and even atheists. Some of us have long been members of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign; some are associated with the Multi-Faith Centre at the University; some are campaigning environmentalists; a few are all three. We needed to call ourselves ‘pilgrims’ to get into Israel before any of us could get into Palestine.  To call both ‘The Holy Land’ saved us being political when that would have been unwise, while recognising that it is an area that is holy to all three Abrahamic faiths. Of course I was delighted that the Christians among us were of the sort who would much rather join this sort of tour than one which only visits dead stones (however interesting some of the archaeological sites and however beautiful some of the churches).

So for some of us this visit was a pilgrimage of faith; for all of us it was a pilgrimage of hope and love in solidarity with every Israeli and Palestinian who seeks peace with justice for the other, especially in Derby’s twin city.

We stayed all seven nights in a hotel on the edge of Bethlehem. In addition to our day in Hebron we had full days in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Ramallah, Jericho and Bethany. And half of us did a sponsored cycle ride along the shore of the Sea of Galilee to raise money for a school and a charity for deaf children we visited in Hebron.

Jews, Christians and Muslims all venerate the city of Hebron for its association with Abraham – here the Patriarchs are buried in the only building of king Herod still in use for the purpose for which it was built more than 2,000 years ago.

Hebron is a busy hub of West Bank trade, generating roughly a third of the area’s gross domestic product, largely due to the sale of limestone from its quarries. It has a reputation for its grapes, figs, pottery workshops and glassblowing factories, and is the location of a major dairy-product manufacturer as well as two universities.

Until 90 years ago Hebron was a model of interfaith coexistence – Jews and Arabs lived side by side in Hebron, sharing shops, hospitals and holy sites. But today there is a very strained and sometimes violent relationship between its Israeli and Palestinian residents. With the increase of Jewish Zionist immigration to Palestine and the growth of Arab nationalism, growing tensions culminated in the massacre of 67 Jews in 1929, effectively ending the Jewish presence in Hebron. When Jews returned to the city in the years following the 1967 Six Day War, the Palestinian population viewed them as hostile occupiers. While succeeding governments did not actively promote Jewish settlement in the city, they acquiesced to the uncompromising settlers, who viewed their mission in messianic terms. In 1994 Jewish resident Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Palestinian worshipers in the Tomb of the Patriarchs; following riots, the Israeli Occupation forces closed 20% of the city, including the heart of the city’s market life, to Palestinians.

What were the highlights for me?

Taking my friends to a refugee camp in Bethlehem for a cookery class. Delivering two cases of medical equipment to a refugee camp clinic in Nablus. Delivering two cases of dental equipment from my Derby dentist to a dentist in Bethany. Visiting Yasser Arafat’s mausoleum and museum in Ramallah for the first time. Showing my colleagues the Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem. Renewing baptism vows by the River Jordan on Ash Wednesday. Finding running water during a walk in the desert above Jericho.   Hearing Vespers sung in the Armenian Cathedral of St James in Jerusalem.

And the lowlights?

Being barred from visiting the Temple Area in Jerusalem. Learning not to be anti-Semitic when Israeli soldiers make you take a wheelchair to pieces to get it through a checkpoint – three times in one hour in Hebron. Learning not to be anti-Semitic when visiting refugee camps built in 1948 and wishing their residents could be allowed to travel as freely as we were. Learning not to be anti-Semitic when illegal settlers pour urine and worse on you from their upper storey flats when you are shopping in the Arab (Christian and Muslim) market below.

And a mixture of the two?

Talking with the Mayor of Hebron over dinner and hearing about his experiences of living on ‘death row’ in an Israeli prison; and the love of his wife in her fortnightly visits and daily letter writing. Two riveting lectures which were half political and half about climate change – one in Bethlehem on Palestine’s natural history and one near Jericho about water. And Banksy’s latest paintings on the Separation Fence/Apartheid Wall.